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Should I wait to get a new TV? (2010 edition)

Considering getting a new TV? A flood of announcements at CES 2010 detailing new models makes narrowing down the choice harder than ever. CNET editor David Katzmaier shares his advice.

Those newfangled HDTVs are mighty tempting. Samsung

Q: Dear David,
I'm having difficulty deciding on a flat-panel TV. I am interested in the best quality image, and price is not the major issue. Do I wait for the new models?
-- Thanks, Les

A: Hi Les,
If price isn't the major issue, you want the best picture quality, and you can handle waiting a few months, then definitely do so. As always, I expect the new models to offer improved performance over the old ones.
-- David

This morning I had the following, fairly typical, email exchange with a reader. In fact, this time of year--after CES but before first the first new reviews hit--is characterized by more email uncertainty and questions than any other. Judging from my in-box this Monday morning, 2010 will be no exception.

Last year I addressed the same question with an answer similar to the one I gave Les. I essentially said that now is a great time to pick up a bargain on an older model, but if the new technology appeals to you, you have the patience and you don't minding spending a few hundred dollars more, then wait for reviews on the new models before making a decision.

Not much has changed since then. Sure, many of the new HDTVs announced at CES are mighty tempting, and offer features (3D compatibility, Skype, built-in Wi-Fi, even thinner panels) that might appeal to people who want to live on the bleeding edge. But the TVs that offer them will be priced at a premium compared to current models.

Of those new features, 3D is the best candidate for causing you to pass on those bargain, 2D-only 2009 models and waiting to get a 2010 TV. But before you say "I'm holding out for 3D," you should definitely know the facts. Our 3D TV FAQ provides a good starting point, and its ultimate question is worth reproducing in its entirety:

20. I'm thinking of buying a new TV. Should I wait for 3D TVs?

Not unless you're an early adopter or a die-hard 3D fan who simply can't wait for the next best thing. 3D content will be rare in the first couple of years. Glasses, 3D gear, and of course, the TVs themselves will command a premium price. And like any technology, we expect it to improve quickly--although glasses-free 3D is still a few years away. Getting a new, non-3D TV now is still a fairly safe bet, and you can be sure to enjoy it even after 3D becomes more common. Even when 3D is available on just about every TV--something we expect to happen within the next few years--viewers will probably don the glasses mainly for special events like sports and movies, and not necessarily to watch the evening news.

Aside from 3D, the other main reason to wait is in anticipation of better picture quality (call me crazy, but I doubt you care about Skype on your TV). Many of the enthusiast readers of CNET, and more than a few of its editors, have been wondering when some TV maker would deliver performance that could rival that of a TV widely acknowledged as the best ever: Pioneer's Kuro plasmas. Panasonic has come the closest, and its 2009 models delivered significantly better performance then the company's 2008 sets. Given that history, demos we saw at CES, and Panasonic's own claims, we expect the 2010 models to be even better than their 2009 brethren.

Panasonic isn't the only TV maker whose picture quality improved in 2009. In fact, if you read the reviews of the 5 best-performing TVs of 2009 and of most other well-reviewed TVs last year, you'll see that almost without exception, HDTVs have gotten incrementally better in important picture quality aspects like black levels, color accuracy (which goes hand-in-hand with adjustability) and video processing. We have no reason to think that 2010 will be any different. Of course, we'll only know for sure when we can perform a direct comparison. We will do as soon as we get a 2010 review sample, sometime this spring for most TV makers.

What we do know for sure is that prices on 2009 models are, for the most part, at rock-bottom now as retailers make room for the new crop. And again, unless you're someone who must have the best picture quality, or the latest features, chances are you'll be perfectly happy with last year's HDTV. You can enjoy a lot of beautiful high-def images throughout the year as you wait for prices on the 2010 models to fall again. And by the time they do, you'll probably have heard inklings of something better coming out in 2011.

What's your take? Are you willing to wait for the promise of better black levels, 3D, or new interactive features? Or are you willing to risk buyer's remorse and take the plunge now? Let us know in comments.